Showing Grit, Stifling Defense in Dramatic NCAA Run Tiger Women’s Hoops Edges N.C. State, Falls to Utah
STONE COLD: Princeton University women’s basketball player Grace Stone heads to the hoop in recent action. Last Friday, senior guard Stone drained a three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left in regulation to give the 10th-seeded Tigers a 64-63 win over seventh-seeded N.C. State in the first round of the NCAA tournament’s Greenville 2 Region in Salt Lake City, Utah. Two days later, Stone scored 16 points with a game-high four 3-pointers but it wasn’t enough as Princeton fell 63-56 to second-seeded Utah. The defeat left the Tigers with a final record of 24-6. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
Grace Stone clearly didn’t want it to end.
As Princeton University women’s basketball team trailed N.C. State last Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament’s Greenville 2 Region in Salt Lake City, Utah, senior guard Stone drained a three-pointer from the corner to give the Tigers a 64-63 win and keep their season alive.
“That is a play we practiced over, and over; that is a shot I have taken in a game before,” said Stone, who scored with 4.7 seconds left in the game. “I think my teammates have all the confidence in the world in me. I knew, if I missed the shot, they would get the offensive rebound. It is really hard not to shoot with confidence when you have teammates like mine. Yes, I think before the play, I knew what shot we had to get. When it happened, I blacked out. Then afterwards, just a bunch of hugs.”
Princeton head coach Carla Berube was not surprised to see Stone come up with the clutch bucket.
“She has ice in her veins, that look in her eyes,” said Berube of Stone, who tallied 22 points in the win to lead the Tigers along with junior guard Kaitlyn Chen. “She will make a play and hit the shot. N.C. State did a good job hounding Kaitlyn so much, she wasn’t getting any looks. It was really hard for her. You know, that is Grace’s time. A hammer screen we set for Grace; that was a play we had run in our Columbia game at home. We executed it well then — so let’s do it again. I think Grace’s teammates have so much confidence in her that she is going to make that shot. So, yes, just you know, executed it really well.”
The Tigers relied on their calling card, a stifling defense, to get back into the contest as they rallied from a 63-55 deficit with 5:44 remaining in the fourth quarter and ended the game on a 9-0 run. Princeton forced the Wolfpack into 20 turnovers and 36 percent shooting (8-of-22) in the second half
“The defense came up big — then we made really big shots when we needed to,” said Berube, whose team became the first Ivy League women’s program to win games in two straight NCAA tournaments as the Tigers had upset Kentucky 69-62 in the first round of the 2022 tourney.
“Certainly, N.C. State was really tough. They are long, athletic, defend well, and they rebound well. Again, it feels a bit like our Ivy League Championship win. We had to grind it out and get gritty and just make the plays.”
In pulling out the win against the Wolfpack, the Tigers made Ivy history as their triumph combined with the Princeton men’s 59-55 win over Arizona a day earlier in their NCAA opener made it the first time two teams from the league advanced in the national tourney in the same year.
The Tiger women drew
inspiration from the heroics of their male counterparts.
“We were watching in the locker room right before practice,” recalled Tiger senior star Julia Cunningham. “We looked at each other, ‘we are next, now it is our turn.’ It is special. A special week to be a Tiger.”
Two nights later against second-seeded Utah, Stone was at it again, producing another special performance. She tallied 16 points with a game-high four 3-pointers, but it wasn’t enough as Princeton fell 63-56 to the Utes to end the winter with a 24-6 record.
Once again, Princeton’s grit helped it produce a dramatic rally. Trailing 40-30 midway through the third quarter, the Tigers narrowed the gap to 50-48 with 7:00 left in regulation.
“It’s something that we always preached, that toughness wins basketball games,” said Stone. “I think that this team is really good because we do the dirty work and we do the work nobody else wants to do. I’m really proud of us for that because it always keeps us in basketball games and you want to leave it all out on the floor and you don’t want to have any regrets. I think that when you play with all of your heart, it’s hard to have those.”
Berube liked the heart her players displayed in battling high-powered Utah, which came into the game averaging 84.1 points a game.
“We feel like we came up short of our goal but you know, I think we battled from minute one to minute 40, and I couldn’t be prouder of my team and how hard we played,” said Berube, who got 19 points from Chen with Ellie Mitchell adding nine and Cunningham contributing six.
“Some shots just didn’t fall for us,” said Berube. “They fouled a little bit too much. Utah is a very, very good team, very talented, and hard to guard. They are really great at every position. We had our work cut out for us but I think we were right there.”
Trailing Utah 20-12 at the end of the first quarter, Princeton tightened up its defense to get back into the contest which drew a crowd of 8,563 to the Huntsman Center.
“I think we finally clicked a little bit better defensively toward the end of the second quarter, and started really helping each other out, helping inside, doing a better job of containing,” said Berube, whose team narrowed the gap to 32-26 at halftime and ended up outscoring the Utes 44-43 over the last three quarters of the game.
“There’s some fouling that we did and put them on the line where they got a lot of points that way. It’s just tough because we play aggressive defense and yeah, I think at times we were a second late on things. Huge credit to my players for battling — battling the whole time and never giving up. That’s that toughness, the physical toughness, but the mental toughness that they show game-in and game-out.”
The Tigers showed their toughness on the boards, coming up with 20 offensive rebounds on the night.
“I think it’s a big thing for us,” said junior forward Mitchell, who grabbed a game-high 18 rebounds in the defeat. “We always want to win the rebounding battle. I think we got those second chances, it kind of deflates the other team. We get great open looks, so that’s always a big focus for us. Came up short today but it gets us those looks that we need.”
Although the defeat to Utah was deflating, Berube saw the season as a success, citing the influence of her senior group of Maggie Connolly, Kira Emsbo, Lexi Weger, Cunningham, and Stone in leading the way for the Tigers.
“This game doesn’t define our season; we had an awesome, awesome ride,” said Berube, whose team started off 0-2 in Ivy League play and proceeded to reel off 16 straight wins coming into the contest with Utah. “Our five seniors have been just incredible. They have been sort of our nucleus, our glue, our everything and Grace is one of them, and left this program that really great place. They were sophomores when I got to Princeton and they have just been just amazing for me and my staff. I’ll miss them just so much.”
While the ride at Princeton has ended for Stone, she won’t soon forget it.
“To be able to pull out really gritty wins and help my team to the record that we have obviously, is such an honor for me,” said Stone. “To be able to have a season with my besties is just the best thing ever.”